If the man sentenced to death for shooting Toni MacDonald's son repeatedly with a 9 mm pistol had been executed immediately after his conviction, the Santa Rosa mother would have supported such swift justice.
However, nearly two decades have passed since the killing of James "Jimmy Mac" MacDonald, a Santa Rosa native and former Piner High School quarterback. The man convicted of the slaying, Regis Dean Thomas, remains on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.
"I wish it would have been the next day," MacDonald said. "But then as time went by — now I have issues with the death penalty. The cost to the public is astronomical ... And that's never going to change; it just won't."
An initiative to abolish the death penalty qualified Monday for the November ballot, once again thrusting Californians into the debate over capital punishment.
Supporters of the measure, which is called the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, contend that the sluggish pace of executions and high costs associated with housing Death Row inmates and overseeing their cases are obstacles to justice.
If the measure passes, men convicted of some of Sonoma County's most heinous crimes would have their sentences converted from death to life without the possibility of parole.
Among them are seven men convicted of killing their own children and wives, of raping girls, of stabbing an elderly woman and of shooting a deputy.
"The only reason I think about Richard Allen Davis at all is because these people who oppose the death penalty keep throwing this in our faces," said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped from her Petaluma home, then raped and strangled. Her body was discarded near an abandoned lumber mill in Cloverdale.
Davis was sentenced to death in 1996. He awaits execution.
Fourteen California Death Row inmates have been executed since 1978, including a man whose execution took place in Missouri. At that pace, it would take 1,800 years to execute 720 people — the number of men and women currently on Death Row.
The process drags families through decades of hearings, said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison and one of the measure's supporters.
"Life without the possibility of parole means these inmates will die in prison and it means that we will quit spending millions to billions on appeals," said Woodford, a one-time Rohnert Park resident who now runs the national nonprofit group Death Penalty Focus.
"It is a broken system," she said.
The cost of death penalty cases is no small matter for California, which faces a huge ongoing budget deficit, said Woodford, who began to work at San Quentin State Prison in 1978 after graduating from Sonoma State University.
"These crimes are horrible; there's nothing we can do to bring closure to these family members," she said. "But we certainly can end this legal battle that can go on forever."
California spent $308 million on each of the 13 cases that have resulted in execution at San Quentin since 1978, according to a comprehensive three-year study by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and his law clerk and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.
The state currently spends $184 million a year on death penalty cases, according to the study. The figure includes legal costs for trials, appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.
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